Experimental Course: Writing, Rhetoric, and Music

Writing, Rhetoric, and Music: A New Reader, a New Focus, and a New Discourse Community

Katie E. Young


This section of Writing 150 utilized music to facilitate student interest in writing. Assignments were designed to engage with music in meaningful ways, and readings from a course packet about music and issues pertaining to the music industry were the foundation for class discussion. This packet replaced one of the four readers typically used in Writing 150. Music thus became a tool for reinforcing and exploring the foundational concepts of writing, rhetoric, and research, affording students the opportunity to actively participate in a specific set of discourse communities while exploring the principles of writing and rhetoric.

The four major assignments for this course are

1) Rhetorical Analysis: Students wrote a 3–5 page rhetorical analysis of song lyrics. In most ways, it closely resembled the traditional rhetorical analysis written in BYU’s 150 classes. However, most of my students focused on pathos and figurative language. Few of them found songs that employed logic for a rhetorical purpose. The students chose their own songs; I neither required that they write on particular songs, nor provided suggestions. At the beginning of this unit, I had invention conferences with the students to ensure that the songs they chose had enough material to write on. They were required to bring in three songs that they thought had a clear rhetorical purpose, etc. We then discussed the possibilities of writing on each song; most students left the conference with a particular song in mind and the beginnings of an argument. This allowed me to ensure that the assignment was as rigorous as the traditional Rhetorical Analysis.

2) Issues Paper: The students wrote a traditional 8–10 page research-based argumentative paper focusing on an issue dealing with music or the music industry. Popular and interesting topics included file sharing, censorship, technology and music, the psychology of music, The Mozart Effect, the influence of heavy metal on youth and young adults, music and education, the role of women in hip hop, and the influence of the Beatles and the Beach Boys on music today.

3) Personal Essay: The last paper my students wrote was a 4–6 page personal essay exploring students’ experiences with music and rhetoric. This assignment was not a simple personal narrative; rather, we studied creative writing theory regarding the essay, and my students ruminated on a particular topic until they arrived at an epiphany through associated experiences. They were required to incorporate music into the essay at some point. Some addressed the topic directly: for example, one student wrote a piece called “The Collection,” which ruminated on the change from owning a large, illegal collection of music to purposefully avoiding owning music. Most students worked music into a rumination on another topic. For example, several students wrote about their relationships with fathers, often using their fathers’ music as a point of departure for rumination.

4) Multimodal Argument Assignment and Final: Students collaboratively were assigned to create a double-faceted ad campaign to attract a specific audience to an on-campus attraction. They produced a brochure for their multimodal argument and then gave a presentation using written, visual, and oral rhetoric to convince their audience to visit this attraction. Students were to use music in a rhetorically effective manner during their presentation and distribute their brochure in conjunction with the presentation.

Minor Assignments included typical assignments for Writing 150 classes: library tutorial and tour, the punctuation exercises, and smaller writing assignments designed to encourage thorough and productive writing processes. These were collected into a portfolio and graded at the time of the final paper.

The course readings shaped and informed the assignments in this section in a similar level to what is common in Writing 150 as it presently stands. I personally collected several articles from Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Paste, and other such authoritative journals and magazines in order to introduce and discuss issues shaping the music industry today.


I met several of the learning outcomes of Writing 150 through standard means common in most sections. However, this section allowed me to focus on particular outcomes. Focusing on music and the associated discourse communities allowed my students to more fully “recognize the pervasiveness and importance of rhetoric in our society and lives, and utilize rhetoric as a means of achieving a purpose through both words and images.” I have designed my section around the goal of creating a more thorough theme or lens to explore the concepts of writing and rhetoric and helping the students to realize the pervasiveness of rhetoric and discourse communities. This section increased student awareness of how pervasive and consistent rhetoric is in their lives by linking rhetoric with music. My students were able to consider the effects of the rhetorical power of music in their lives as it constantly surrounds them in commercials, malls, on iPods, etc. As they wrote each of the papers, they were able to consider the role music has played in their own lives, in their discourse communities, and throughout the world as part of the human condition. Students engaged with music and its associated issues and discourse communities as a microcosm of rhetoric, which they can personally explore, discover, analyze, and consume. I feel that this overarching focus justifies my modifications to the assignments and allows my students to develop a heightened sense of meta-cognition of rhetoric as they explore an avenue about which many are passionate. Additionally, as music is one of Gardener’s intelligences, playing music in 150 allowed my students to access an aspect of learning that is not often accessed in a normal 150.


The class as a whole worked really well. The students were really invested and really interested in the subject matter throughout the semester in both sections. Their papers were interesting and, for the most part, well-written. Our discussions were productive, and it was easy to incorporate music into our discussions.

Particularly, I saw much more success with the Rhetorical Analysis Unit than I have in the past. The skills they learned in preliminary activities, such as identifying and analyzing figurative language in song lyrics and an in-class rhetorical analysis of “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé,transferred directly into their papers. In regular sections, students sometimes struggle to apply analytical skills developed in one media to another. The music-focus allowed more intuitive skills in small groups that readily transferred to the students’ papers.

For every paper, their topic selections were really interesting. Overall, the students seemed really excited and invested in their topic choices for each paper—the topics seemed more personal, which always makes a difference. Also, the invention process for the Issues Paper seemed to go much more smoothly. In the past, I taught using the religion reader, and I allowed any topic dealing with an ethical issue. Several of my students were frustrated by having to come up with something ethical that they were passionate about. Eventually, they all found topics and moved forward with papers on really general subjects like abortion, gun control, adoption by homosexual couples, etc. In this section, most of my students wrote about topics that mattered to them personally. My students were generally excited about these topics and arrived at them fairly quickly. Although many of them refined their topics as they wrote, only one or two per section changed their topic completely; in the past I’ve had as many as four students change their topics at a point in the process, which makes it difficult to do a good job overall.

These are just two examples, but the topic of the course worked well as a whole. The students were very interested and invested in the course. We conferenced a lot, especially during the invention processes for the first two papers. Also, where my interests in music have been a reoccurring, somewhat-distracting tangent in other classes, it was a strength in this class. I was also able to cater towards the music my students liked in my examples and in our pre-class music moment, which made the students even more invested in the course. I also really enjoyed the Personal Essay Unit and feel that the students learned really valuable lessons about writing, critical thinking and style.

The first semester there were some issues with having the Personal Essay Unit wedged in between the Rhetorical Analysis Unit and the Issues Paper Unit. The personal essay assignment I designed relies heavily on creative writing theory. It teaches critical thinking, style, and organization skills; however, the logic of a personal essay is very different from the logic of a rhetorical analysis or issues paper. The transition in and out of this paper was somewhat difficult, as it represented a different mindset, and we needed more of a foundation in style, word choice, etc. than we had time to establish at this point in the course. To address this issue, I switched the Personal Essay Unit and the Issues Paper Unit. This means that my students wrote a rhetorical analysis, then an issues paper, then a personal essay, and finally a multimodal project. This structure proved to be more intuitive. The Rhetorical Analysis Unit worked as an introduction to scholarly thought and writing within a prescribed genre. The Issues Paper built on these skills while polishing the thinking, argumentation, and structure. Finally, the Personal Essay provided an opportunity to strengthen issues of style, voice, tone, etc. while working within a different set of critical thinking skills and organizational models. This proved to be highly beneficial to the students, and I saw a lot of growth in their writing as we moved through the semester.

Future Direction

Teaching this course was incredibly foundational to my future teaching. I believe that all writing is highly personal, no matter what. This course allowed me to take something that I care about very deeply and share it with my students, who responded in turn. Never have I seen students so invested in their papers (in general). There were many days when they were excited to come to class, to participate in discussions, and to share their work with one another. I believe that music is universal; it touches everyone from the elitist music fanatic to the apathetic pop listener. Even those rare few who don’t like music have opinions on the topic that allow them to contribute to discussion in productive ways. Finding such universal themes is vital to a successful Writing 150 classroom. I believe this means that regardless of the topic reader, any Writing 150 instructor should diligently strive to get his or her students invested in the topic so that they are passionate about writing and rhetoric. This will allow more growth and more overall success in the Writing 150 classroom.

View the course syllabus here: Young_Syllabus